15th November 2008
I’ve recently read ‘GIs and Germans: Culture, Gender, and Foreign Relations, 1945-1949’ by Petra Goedde (Yale University Press, 2003).
In summary, the argument put forward in the book is that personal relationships between the occupiers and occupied preceded and, in part, caused the changes in US policy towards Germany in the two years after the war.
“Within the first year of occupation, American soldiers developed a feminized and infantalized image of Germany that contrasted sharply with the masculine, wartime, image of Nazi storm troopers … By 1947, Americans saw the Soviet Union as a greater threat to their security than Germany, not so much because the Soviet Union had become more of a threat but because Western Germany had become less of a threat. … The cold war was therefore as much a consequence as a cause of the improved relationship between Germany and the United States.”
The German people the US soldiers met did not correspond to their “government’s official wartime image of a monolithic people unified by their support for the war. Instead they found a defeated population devastated by the destruction of the war and rather desperate in its desire to make peace with the Allies. While the Army pamphlets warned solders about ‘the German’ – mostly in the masculine singular – soldiers saw a plurality of Germans, men and women, young and old, Nazis and non-Nazis, locals and refugees, perpetrators and victims. The lines that once had so clearly separated ‘us’ from ‘them’ became increasingly blurred … Just as American military officials could not prevent the emergence of mutual friendships between their soldiers and German women, so too policy makers could not hold on to a punitive directive in the face of the socio-cultural rapprochement in occupied Germany.”
This was the first time I have found a historian explicitly claim, in Petra Goedde’s words in the conclusion to her book, that: “the process of rehabilitation began before the emergence of the cold war. It thus refutes one of the major assumptions of postwar German-American relations: that American policy toward Germany became conciliatory as a result of the cold war. In fact, as the preceding study shows, German-American rapprochement was as much a cause as a consequence of the cold war.”
‘GI’s and Germans’ refers almost exclusively to the US Zone of Occupation, as you would expect from the title, but much of what she wrote would appear to apply equally to the British Zone, and not surprisingly, given my own research as described on this blog over the past 3 years, I tend to agree with her conclusions. See, for example my posts on British and US First Impressions of Germany in 1945, and How three British army offices reacted to the transition from war to peace in Germany, 1945.
A year ago, in a post about the book The Struggle for Germany, by Drew Middleton, the highly regarded US journalist and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, I asked the question: “When and why did British and US policy towards Germany change after the war?” and the answer I gave at the time was:
“In my research so far, I have found that British policy and attitudes towards Germany changed in the transition from war to peace, in many ways which had little to do with fear of any threat from the Soviet Union. It seems to me that this change in policy was led as much by those on the ground, in Germany, as by the politicians and civil servants in London. The British in Germany realised very soon after the end of the war that there was no threat of further German resistance. They were shocked at the scale of destruction they saw all around them and made great efforts to restore order and start the process of economic reconstruction. They did this partly because the need appeared self-evident, and partly to reduce the cost of occupation to the British taxpayer. In time, they came to feel and express sympathy for the suffering of Germany people as individuals. Both British and US soldiers and administrators found they could work well with German administrators and were increasingly willing to transfer responsibility for government back to local German control. All this happened well before Cold War concerns started to dominate foreign policy in Britain and the US, with the Berlin Air Lift in 1948 and the Korean War in 1950.”
However, as always, there are no simple answers. The more I look into the question of why British soldiers and administrators in Germany reacted to the end of the war in they way they did, what they aimed to achieve, and how this changed over time, the more difficult and complex it appears.
For a different view of the book ‘GIs and Germans’ see the review on H-Net